Appreciating Superwoman

There was a lot of discussion about recently appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who decided to take maternity leave while taking the reins at a struggling company in a competitive industry.

Yahoo accepted her pregnancy, and Chairman Fred Amoroso said, “Mayer’s unparalleled track record in technology, design and product execution makes her the right leader for Yahoo at this time of enormous opportunity.”

Given her pedigree and experience at Google, by all accounts Mayer is a highly qualified woman capable of leading this large and progressive company. I took my hat off to her for making the decision, but many did not share my opinion and questioned her ability and dedication.

One cannot overstate the importance of work-life balance. Even in a position as rigorous as CEO of a technology giant, one must be able to separate oneself from work. Corporate America should make more of an effort to understand and appreciate the many capabilities executives such as Mayer have to offer.

Upon reflection, I realized Mayer and Yahoo are in a unique situation. Too often highly qualified female job candidates are passed over because of their desire to have children and a balanced family life. Despite the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, many employers view pregnancy as an impediment to productivity. Since 2001, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has resolved 52,000 pregnancy cases and courts have awarded $150.5 million in compensation. While this stigma predominantly affects women in low-income jobs, female executives have a tacit understanding of the impact pregnancy may have on their careers and how they are perceived in the workplace.

As an executive-level African-American male working for more than 40 years, I have seen many highly qualified African-American females face the same issues as Mayer. Many of these women are not only the first in their family to work in the private sector, but also the first to move quickly up the corporate ladder. Alongside personal and professional goals, many experience the added burden of high expectations for community involvement and mentoring.

Since I started my career, I have seen male and female African-American corporate executives deal with the issue of time devotion to community service and mentoring. As a highly paid executive in this relatively unique position, the community expects that these individuals will not only serve on nonprofit boards, but that they will support community organizations financially at higher levels than their white counterparts and become change agents both within and outside their corporations. When family planning becomes involved, African-American women must become, as Alicia Keys says in her song, “Superwoman” at home. In many cases, the same person has to be the lead provider for her extended family, church leader and too often the single parent.

Superwomen are successful around the workplace in many ways. They demonstrate superior problem solving and leadership skills, but are all of their skills truly understood and appreciated in large companies? Unfortunately, no. While the Yahoo board accepted Mayer’s maternity leave, the public reaction was very negative.

In 2010, 11 of the 12 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies had children. However, most women have had to delay their plans until their children were older, often waiting until their 40s or 50s to take on CEO roles. In the Wall Street Journal article “When Mom Is CEO: ‘Something Usually Has to Give,’” many female executives said they felt they had to prioritize career over family. Ursula Burns, Xerox’s CEO, is the only black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and her children were teenagers when she accepted the position.

I admit that most professionals with similar skills can reach the highest levels in corporate America, if all they had to do is focus only on the demands and cultural challenges it. This is not a reality for most executives, particularly African-American superwomen and executives who are assisting and improving the lives of the next generation of leaders.

James H. Lowry is a senior adviser for Boston Consulting Group and inaugural member of the Minority Business Hall of Fame. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.